Posted on January 26, 2009 in Washington Watch

In appointing former Senator George Mitchell as Special Envoy for the Middle East, President Barack Obama made clear his determination to pursue Arab-Israeli peace. Mitchell, an Arab American, was former Majority Leader of the U.S. Senate and widely recognized for his role in achieving peace in Northern Ireland. He has the stature the job demands.

His appointment was the capstone of President Obama’s first two days in office, days replete with signals that the new President is committed to fulfill the promise of his Inaugural Address to restore America’s leadership through diplomacy, and our image through a reassertion of our ideals and values.

On the President’s first day, he signed Executive Orders banning torture and closing Guantanamo prison. He convened his military command, giving them the order to prepare for a sixteen-month withdrawal of all combat forces from Iraq. But, even more striking were his early decisions to address the Arab-Israeli conflict.

During the campaign, it will be remembered, Obama faulted President Bush for neglecting the search for peace until late in his second term. Obama pledged, instead, to engage from “day one”. Some assumed this to be a rhetorical device, not to be taken literally; but on “day one” the President acted, making his first call to Palestinian Authority President Abbas, followed by calls to King Abdullah II, President Mubarak, and P.M. Olmert. Then, on day two, the President, joined by his new Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, announced the appointment of Mitchell, making extended remarks outlining his commitment to a comprehensive Middle East peace, and his concern with the human toll resulting from the recent war in Gaza.

Mitchell is a skilled statesman, and a savvy political leader. As he has demonstrated throughout his career, he is a pragmatic, patient, and determined problem-solver. He also understands the requirements imposed by political realities and, therefore, the need to create a buy-in for agreements reached.

What Mitchell also knows is that he must have the full support of the U.S. President to succeed, as was the case with President Clinton in Northern Ireland and as was not the case with his Mitchell Plan for the Middle East, which was not supported by President Bush. Mitchell would not have accepted this post without assurances of President Obama’s commitment. In accepting the post, therefore, Mitchell made clear that he had the strong support of President Obama and went on to note that his efforts “must be backed up by political capital, economic resources, and focused attention at the highest levels of our government… and firmly rooted in a shared vision of a peaceful future by the people who live in the region.”

Obama’s remarks warrant examination. Careful not to move too far ahead of his envoy’s mission, he initially reiterated long-standing positions. Hamas, he noted, must disavow terror, noting that such actions hurt not only Israelis, but Palestinians, “whose interests,” he observed, “are only set back by acts of terror.” He restated the belief that Israel, like any other nation, has the right to defend itself; and that Hamas should abide by the international conditions asked of it.

But then Obama added a rather striking sentence. “Now, just as the terror of rocket fire aimed at innocent Israelis is intolerable, so, too, is a future without hope for Palestinians.” He continued, speaking with concern and compassion about the substantial suffering and humanitarian needs of the Palestinian people.

“Our hearts go out to Palestinian civilians who are in need of immediate food, clean water, and basic medical care, and who’ve faced suffocating poverty for too long. … As part of a lasting cease-fire, Gaza’s border crossings should be open to allow the flow of aid and commerce…. The United States will fully support an international donor’s conference to seek short-term humanitarian assistance and long-term reconstruction for the Palestinian economy.”

The President concluded his remarks with an endorsement of the Arab peace initiative, noting its constructive elements while urging the Arab states to play a greater role in the peace effort.

This challenge, I believe, should be taken seriously, and acted upon. While no one can expect the Arab states to take unilateral and unsupported steps toward normalization with Israel, the time is right for Arab leaders to elaborate on their initiative by providing a developed plan of incremental, equivalent, and sequential initiatives that lead to full peace.

For example, steps can be taken to incentivize Palestinian unity with a massive reconstruction and institution-building effort that supports strengthening security, and job creation. Such an elaboration can also provide for a Track II component for Israeli-Palestinian, –Syrian, and –Lebanese peace efforts – tying movement on these tracks to reciprocal Israeli moves to end settlement construction and remove checkpoints, outposts and barriers on Palestinian land, allowing for freedom of movement and commerce.

Coupling serious peace talks with parallel discussions on expanding Arab-Israeli peace, leading to normalization following the signing of peace agreements, would facilitate the Mitchell mission, establishing Arabs as full partners in the peace effort.

Will Mitchell succeed? As the Senator himself made clear, the process he is undertaking will neither be easy, nor will it make progress overnight. But, at this point, the U.S. is now engaged as a committed partner, and this should be built upon.

As I watched the President speaking on only his second day in office, I remembered words he addressed to Arab Americans during his campaign for President, when he noted “As President, I will make a personal commitment to work toward ending the conflict between the Palestinians and the Israelis, and realize the goal of two states living side-by-side in peace and security. This is important to Arab Americans, it is important to American Jews, and it is important to me.”

After the actions of just his first two days, it appears he means it.

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